“You Ruined My Childhood”: The Fetishizing of Nostalgia

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Image from ComingSoon.

You may be familiar with the kerfuffle surrounding the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, directed by Paul Feig with the four leading roles played by women. From its initial announcement to the trailer releases, with a million think-pieces in between, there has been a surprising level of pushback from a small but deafeningly loud minority regarding the gender swapped casting. This anger has reached the point where the trailer now has the most dislikes on YouTube of any trailer on the site. Screencrush reported rumours that some had set up bot accounts to drastically drive the dislike numbers up, which is a whole new level of having too much time on your hands.

I’ve heard the justifications for the near violent level of opposition to this film, and all of them are ridiculous; from claims of political correctness gone mad to a feminist plot involving the infamously female friendly film industry. The one that sticks most in my mind, and the one that represents an impossible to ignore problem in geek focused communities, is the cry of “You ruined my childhood”, or, to make it even sicker, “You raped my childhood”.

I think of how fragile these people’s memories of their childhoods must have been to see them so thoroughly destroyed by a remake starring Melissa McCarthy and a bunch of Saturday Night Live alumni. My initial response to these claims is usually eye-rolling, yet I can’t overlook the insidious implications that come with this. It’s not a new line, of course. George Lucas has probably heard it enough times to hope the phrase dies off altogether, and various fan theories for 90s kids TV shows have filled a never-ending stream of Buzzfeed lists loudly declaring the shocking conspiracies that’ll shatter your rose-tinted glasses. It’s not always used in a gendered way as it has undeniably been with the new Ghostbusters, but in this particular instance it’s important to dissect the ways “childhood” is defined and weaponised to oppose progressive change.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been around almost as long as Hollywood itself. The past decade or so has seen a noticeable increase in the output of remakes, mostly because it’s seen as a safe financial bet. Look at Disney’s slate for the next few years. Often seen as soulless money making exercises, remakes can offer a variety of artistic opportunities, and help evolve interesting but dated themes and ideas to fit a more mature audience. The 2011 remake of the 80s horror-comedy Fright Night is my favourite example of this. Taking a story that arouses fond nostalgic memories in the most profitable demographics and tailoring it to fit a particular film-maker and his strengths is a good idea: Paul Fieg’s films make money and get good reviews, Melissa McCarthy is one of the few people in Hollywood who can open a film and take it to the top spot at the box office, and Ghostbusters is a familiar tale not over-told that’s full to the brim with potential. I’m stunned it took as long as it did to remake it.

But let’s be honest. That’s not why these men are mad. The act of remaking is not the offending part. It’s the women at the forefront that incite their ire. They’ll justify their often aggressive opinions with other elements – ‘the trailer isn’t funny’, ‘why remake everything’, and so on – but their message is clear.

Childhoods are not ruined by films like this. The newest Indiana Jones film didn’t retroactively destroy the other three. Rey and Finn’s inclusion in The Force Awakens didn’t lead to your fond youthful memories of the original trilogy being wiped from your brain, and neither did the prequels. Finding out about Bill Cosby and Rolf Harris didn’t destroy your childhoods – although in many cases, these men did literally ruin lives – and lady Ghostbusters won’t either.

The claim of ruined childhoods in this instance is rooted in the insinuation that women didn’t get childhoods, or that theirs were worth less than those of men. The idea that the mere inclusion of women in a space like this film, and the geek culture it’s inspired, will spoil it is the driving force behind the overwhelming misogyny many of us encounter in nerdy circles. Young girls growing up and struggling to find women on screen to relate and aspire to is just the business; trying to rectify that for a new generation is a culture war. Putting women on screen as heroes, as autonomous being who drive the plot and don’t act as second fiddle to a man, is seen as an agenda filled act that must be stopped. Having to acknowledge the mere existence of women is a personal affront. Change is bad.

The refusal to evolve with the times goes against the very claim these men say they support: Remakes are bad but not as bad as change. It’s a bizarre Catch-22 situation. The industry has to change because audiences demand it. They’re speaking out in favour of a new way of creativity that challenges the traditional structures of power in favour of a vision that reflects the world we live in. They’re opposing white supremacy and white-washing; they’re questioning the overwhelming maleness of the industry on and off-screen; they’re calling out transphobic tropes and casting pushed by cisgender assumptions. They want something new. Hollywood isn’t moving anywhere near at the speed audiences would like it to. Getting a women driven Ghostbusters is in many ways as radical as Hollywood will get. Putting women in positions previously shut off to them is a positive step forward, and we all benefit from this progressive change.

Nostalgia itself isn’t a bad thing. There’s much to be gained from fond memories and seeking to understand what it is about the media we consumed as children that made us who we are. The real joy of nostalgia, at least in my opinion, is in the sparks of creativity it insights and inspiration to create our own worlds and ideas. The fetishizing of nostalgia is rooted in the disheartening assumption that nothing gets better, that nothing will ever be as important as the things you liked, and nobody will ever understand those things as well as you do.

Laura Hudson wrote a review of Ernest Cline’s Armada for Slate, which perfectly exemplifies the problem with the ruined childhood claim:

“It’s a valuable question for gaming culture—and “nerd culture” more generally—to ask itself: Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn to them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?”

The new Ghostbusters film may be bad. It may flop. We don’t know right now. If it does any of those things, it won’t be because Bill Murray was replaced by Kristen Wiig; it’ll be because the film’s not good. It won’t spoil memories of the original film, nor will it incite some misandrist revolution (sorry). We can choose to embrace change and lead the charge ourselves, creating and inspiring and taking the right messages from our influences, or we can mollycoddle ourselves in the fading past and reject anything that challenges our slivers of power.

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